Latino towns, but not Latino mayors

Por en Noticias 01/31/13 12:28pm
Cicero Town President Larry Dominick sits for a few minutes before leaving the hearing to decide if he could remain on the Feb. 26 ballot, at the Cicero Town Hall, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

For all the talk about Latino political power in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s re-election, Hoy database editor Jeff Kelly Lowenstein recently stumbled on a curious fact:

Fifteen towns in the state of Illinois are majority Latino, but only one of them has a Latino mayor.

Here’s a list of those towns, their 2010 population, and the percentage of Latinos living there.

We wondered why there aren’t more Latino mayors in majority-Latino towns, so as a start, we called the mayors to ask them.

The answers ranged from defensive to pragmatic. (Two mayors, Melrose Park’s Ronald Serpico and Stone Park’s Beniamino Mazzulla, asked if I was “Hispanic.”)

Several of the mayors made a point of saying that they’ve appointed plenty of Latinos to positions of authority.

“We’re very diverse,” said Park City Mayor Steve Pannell, after listing several Latinos who work in city government: Two guys in public works, the woman in charge of water billing, three aldermen and three cops.

Along those same lines, Summit Mayor Joseph W. Strzelczyk listed the village attorney, two trustees, and the fire chief as Latinos with authority.

“I was the first mayor to put a Latino in the village clerk’s office who could speak Spanish, I was the first mayor to put Latino-speaking people in the billing department, just many many things to integrate forgotten people into the village,” Strzelczyk said.

“If you wanna ask this question, call Cicero,” the mayor of Summit added.

We did, in fact, call Cicero Mayor Larry Dominick, though we didn’t hear back. Add Robert J. Lovero, Mayor of Berwyn, Donald W. Schupek, Mayor of Posen, Jeffrey Sherwin, Mayor of Northlake, and Ruben Pineda of West Chicago, to the list of mayors who didn’t return our message.

(Pineda, funny enough, is the only Latino mayor of a majority-Latino city.)

At least one of the mayors we spoke with was confused about the population in his town.

Highwood’s Charlie Pecaro thought his Latino population was around 40% until we told him it was 57%.

“Wow, that’s awesome,” Pecaro said. “I didn’t know that.”

Pecaro said he didn’t know why that would be, but speculated: “It’s a matter of time and organization. Immigrants, regardless of what their race and nationality is, it takes them a while to get comfortable here. Once they do, I think they should assert themselves.”

Carpentersville Mayor Ed Ritter suggested Latinos in his town just haven’t been particularly assertive.

“Well, our Hispanic population has not been real active politically,” Ritter said. He’s tried to recruit Latinos to run but hasn’t been able to get more people involved. One person was too busy with family; the other was tending to his business.

“I dunno, except for anecdotal reasons, Hispanics must be pretty satisfied with the way the village is running and haven’t had any major cause that would make them politically active,” Ritter said.

Eric Bryant, Mayor of Village of Depue, said his city’s Latinos are highly involved in community affairs.

“I don’t believe we’ve had a Latino mayor but we’ve got, there’s two councilmembers that are married to Latinos,” Bryant said. “Our clerk is married to a Latino.”

No one, of any color, ran against Bryant in the last election, and no one’s running against him this year, either.

“It’s not exactly a highly sought-after job,” he said, explaining that he recently received his paycheck for the past three months. It was a little more than $500.

“Sometimes we have a difficult time even talking people into getting on our town council,” Bryant said.

Stone Park is the state’s largest Latino city, by percentage. Its mayor is an Italian immigrant who said he can relate to their experiences. He also speaks fluent Spanish. Those things are “key,” he said.

“I’ve been here for 36 years in this community,” Mazzulla said. “I grew up in this community.”

Serpico, of Melrose Park, suggested that it’s a “ridiculous” conversation.

“At the end of the day, people are people,” Serpico said. “If at the end of the day people think they’re getting a fair shake, it doesn’t matter if the mayor of an Hispanic area is Chinese.”

Of all the mayors we talked to, Robert Sabonjian of Waukegan had the pithiest answer.

“I can tell you why it is now,” Sabonjian said. “It was because Latinos voted for me in the last election.”